Why Aren’t We Engaging More Youth in Tourism and Hospitality?

hospitality industry students

Step off the plane. Exchange money. Find a taxi. Arrive at the hotel. Check in. Eat dinner. Visit a national tourism site. Buy a souvenir. Return to a clean room. Repeat. Every day of our travel, we engage with the tourism and hospitality sector both directly and indirectly. And yet, we do not ask ourselves who is making sure our needs are met. Who is engaging in the sector and how? Who isn’t – and why?

The tourism and hospitality sector creates jobs, drives exports, and generates incomes around the world. The World Travel & Tourism Council reported the sector accounted for 10 percent of global GDP and 10 percent of total employment in 2018. The sector’s growth even outpaced general economic growth (3.9 percent compared to 3.2 percent). In 2019, its contribution to GDP is expected to rise nearly 4 percent globally, while total employment contribution could rise by 2 percent — accounting for more than 328 million total jobs. Unfortunately, few of those jobs are filled by youth.

The question is, in such a thriving sector, ‘Why aren’t we engaging more youth?’ Youth are eager to find decent jobs and contribute to their national economies, yet in this particular sector there seems to be a dearth of young employees. To get some insights on this topic, in 2018 Making Cents International partnered with YouthBuild International to conduct sector assessments in Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa. Supported by a grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation, this project set out to identify specific challenges for employing young people in the sector and to investigate viable opportunities for youth, available training resources, and existing skills gaps highlighted by employers.

Missing the Boat

One of the key findings was that the economies assessed were not creating the number of new jobs needed to employ the growing youth population, which results in intense competition for entry-level positions. Moreover, jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector are still not sufficiently attractive to youth.

We also found there are additional barriers for women across all three countries. Employment opportunities for women are typically relegated to housekeeping, laundry, and food and beverage. They often experience challenges, particularly safety concerns interacting with guests and managing childcare responsibilities at home. Rising to leadership roles proves difficult for female employees because of a perceived industry preference to fill management positions with men, who are often brought in from Europe.

Fortunately, there were some positive findings. Even after acknowledging these challenges, youth appreciate receiving cash tips and said that for certain positions, there is opportunity for professional growth and consistent income. The young people interviewed also enjoy interacting with customers and guests.

Making the Connection

All assessment findings pointed to a disconnect between available training and employer demands. For example, employers across all three country contexts stated soft skills such as customer care, professionalism, adaptability, problem solving, and teamwork were lacking in the workforce. Employers in Tanzania cited a need for foundational skills like English, math, and basic computer skills. Kenyan employers seek applicants with applicable vocational skills. In South Africa, there is a mismatch between what employers demand and education levels that are actually necessary for those positions (i.e., education expectations of employers are higher than what may be necessary to do the job).

Some organizations have already begun making that connection, are seeing the return on investment youth employees can provide, and have put systems in place to recruit and train them. In Tanzania, the Jambiani Tourism Training Institute (JTTI) in Zanzibar provides free comprehensive training and capacity building to disadvantaged Tanzanians. Students who complete their training are provided with a minimum of three months of work experience in a tourism business. Ecotourism Kenya manages a Leadership and Mentorship internship program matching university students with local tourism organization members, ranging from tour operators, hotels, and community organizations, to airlines, lodges, and camps. In South Africa, entrepreneur Sakhumzi opened his restaurant in 2001 and began a training program for young employees across the entire value chain. These organizations have seen program participants excel in their training, succeed in finding and sustaining employment, provide meaningful impact to their employers, and even start their own businesses.

Planning the Journey

So, how do we create and sustain the demand for youth in the tourism and hospitality sector? There is work to do on both sides. We need to ensure that youth find jobs in the sector appealing and that employers have a workforce that meet their needs. Some steps we can take are:

  • Creating integrated program models: Include soft skills development, workplace-based vocational experience, leadership training, and mentorship opportunities.

  • Providing work-based learning opportunities for trainees: Develop a strong relationship with a hotel or group of hotels to address the skills gap between job applicants and employer needs.

  • Providing technical skills: Promoting high demand skills (e.g., facilities maintenance or food and beverage) would also provide opportunities for youth to work outside the sector as needed.

  • Designing entrepreneurship ‘add-on’ service: Programs within the hospitality value chain, particularly those focused on agriculture, can link newly trained youth with the tourism and hospitality market.

  • Starting awareness training: Employees in the service industry can be at higher risk for sexual exploitation, sexual and verbal harassment, and sex trafficking.

There is much evidence that indicates there is a high return on investment when youth are engaged in decent employment. By implementing a few changes, we can take advantage of this opportunity to provide youth with sustainable employment and companies with a reliable and effective workforce.